Thursday, 26 February 2009

‘And all that is gone…’ – Nick Green

Endings, eh? Following on from Marie-Louise’s post below, I’ve been thinking about endings myself...

We authors of the SAS were having a chat the other day (we meet for a lazy lunch several times a week at a nice little club in Portland Place, where we relax on leather sofas, sip flutes of champagne and pass idle remarks about the size of our latest advances, in between cracking the lobster claws. Actually I fib, we use email. Don’t tell anyone.)

Oh yes – we were having this chat. And one author mentioned that, when reading books, she often reads the first third, then reads the last few chapters, and then reads the middle. This is in order to try and guess at the ending early on, and then see how the author builds up to that climax. Essentially, it’s a professional approach: the writer’s mind always keen to examine how other work is put together. I’m sure it’s not uncommon, either – I know several people, both authors and casual readers, who also skip ahead to the ending before reading the middle.

As someone who won’t even tolerate the tracks of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ being played out of order, I was slightly shocked to hear this. I struggle to get my head around the idea of doing such a thing. For me, Chapter 11 follows from Chapter 10 as surely as ‘Money’ segues into ‘Us And Them’. If you put the CD on shuffle play, I’m not sure you’re getting what you paid for. To read a book out of order seems even odder. Am I being terribly consreavtvie?

A friend of mine recently read my new book in manuscript, and did this very thing – skipped to the end, and then went back to read the middle bit. I must confess, I twitched. That middle bit isn’t just filler, I wanted to grumble. I didn’t put it in to make the covers a bit farther apart. If anything, I care more about middles than I do endings. That’s where the real book is, in my view. The ending just ties it all off. My endings are usually crammed full of stuff blowing up and all hell breaking loose, but that’s really just me going on a bender after a year of sitting at my desk. It’s not really the story so much as final punctuation.

Do people care mostly about endings? I sometimes wish I could avoid them. Let’s face it, they made a film called The Neverending Story, holding that up to be a good thing. These days I read so slowly, if I love the book, that I might read the same paragraph three times before reluctantly moving on to the next. It makes me look like a remedial pupil to anyone who might be watching, but I don’t mind. So long as it prolongs the experience.
Of course, the ending doesn’t have to be the end. If the book’s good, you can always read it again.


Paul Lamb said...

I've often said that you can't begin to understand a book until you've read it at least twice.

I don't read out of sequence. I figure if the author is any good, then the events transpire as they must to build to the end. I know I put a lot of effort into getting my stories in the right order.

Of course there are novels like Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar that are not intended to be read in sequence, which each chapter giving you instructions at the end on which chapter to read next. I'll leave that one to the graduate students though.

Lee said...

Guilty as charged! I almost never read in sequence - partly impatience, mostly to uncover structure. And I always read at least twice if something is worth even finishing. For some reason, knowing the ending helps me to appreciate the rest - to see if the writer has balanced and paced things in a way which satisfies me. And probably it has to do with the type of reader I am - plot doesn't much interest me, anyway.

There are novels which bore me so much - often the ones clumsily written - that I simply skip to the ending, then toss them aside. No, Nick, not yours!

Anonymous said...

No, you're not consreavtvie, Nick.

I'll have you know I was almost on the train to London before you said it was all a joke.

I shuffle on the iPod, but never with books.

You mustn't cheat, Lee!!

Mary Hoffman said...

I'm with you, Nick. i wouldn't DREAM of reading the end before the author had led me there.

And i re-read all the time but even then would not skip ahead.

But, unlike you, I read much too fast - the same way I eat, devouring big mouthfuls, just hoovering it up. I have to make huge efforts to slow down - in both circumstances.

Lee said...

Amusingly, it just occurs to me that the one way to guarantee that your readers don't read ahead is to do exactly as I'm soon going to: serialise your novel online. (Yes, Corvus is nearly ready, and yes, this is dastardly self-promotion, heh.)

Katherine Langrish said...

I don't peek either. Unless it's Stephen King and I need to know if the hero/heroine survives with enough of his/her loved ones intact to make it actually worth my while reading on...
And then, YES, if the book's any good I reread, and reread, and reread. Who cares about the Crack of Doom? The journey is the important thing.